I think we need a tailored response for dealing with people in a public space who are in the midst of a mental health crisis, or who are neurodiverse, or might have some disability that could cause behaviors a non-specialist would misunderstand. Even the idea that someone might call EMS or the fire department for someone with a mental health crisis is already likely using the wrong tool, let alone then potentially having the EMS workers or firefighters behaving as police deputies and calling the police to first engage with the person as a standard practice.
The preferable model for such a situation would be for responders specifically trained to deal with mental health crises (and/or the diverse behavior of people with cognitive differences, disabilities, etc.) getting the first and only call. Sweden has developed a response model like this since 2015 called the mental health ambulance that we could look to as an example, but I think the expertise involved should be expanded beyond just specifically mental health crises.
The idea behind this is to avoid so many people with mental health problems (and diverse other cognitive or physical issues) getting hurt or shot — the Washington Post found, for instance, that in a six-month period in 2015, 25% of the people the police shot and killed in the U.S. were having a mental health crisis.
Over the years, I’ve also seen media coverage of violent interactions between police and people with mental health issues, autism, etc. where it is clear the police do not understand that the person’s mental health issue or cognitive differences are the cause of seemingly “odd” or “erratic” behavior that is not necessarily any threat to the officer or anyone else.
In North Miami in 2016, a police officer even shot the caregiver of an autistic person who was shouting to the police, while lying on the ground, to try to explain who they were and that they were unarmed and represented no threat. (That officer was later convicted of a misdemeanor for “culpable negligence” but found not guilty of attempted manslaughter charges.)
This kind of story is personally very painful for me to hear about. I envision my autistic child in these situations and imagine she might well be killed or hurt by the police if she were unlucky enough to engage with them on a public street, bus, etc. in a similar situation. I imagine it would be all the worse if you’re a large adult male, let alone a Black male, because your (seemingly “erratic”) behavior is then seen as inherently more threatening by the police.
In these cases, it is hard not to think that the end result would have been better with merely the absence of the police, let alone the added presence of a specialist in mental health or neurodiversity who understands that someone whose behavior differs from the “norm,” or who is not immediately complying with orders, doesn’t necessarily represent a violent threat.
I, for one, am not happy with this current outcome of hundreds of deaths or more of mentally ill or neurodiverse people at the hands of the police every year (in terms of having reliable data on this, tracking the statistics of how many people and what kind of people die at the hands of the police every year is extremely important, so any federal legislation being considered right now has to include a database like this, run by researchers with strong investigative powers). I have to think specialists trained to deal with such a situation would do a better job. Indeed, I don’t see any reason to expect police to do a better job in these potentially complex situations because I don’t expect them to be mental health or autism or physical disability experts, and apparently, their training does not even necessarily lead them to listen to health care providers who might by lucky chance already be on the scene. It is high time that we consider another approach.
Unfortunately, neither the current Democratic House bill nor the Republican Senate police reform bill address this issue, but it is something that could at least start to be addressed at the state and local levels with the requisite political will.
However, specifically related to mental illness, we should minimize the occurrence of these crises by making mental health care more readily available to the general population. I can guarantee you it’s likely that too many of those people who were shot and killed could not even afford mental health care, were more or less discarded by the society as unworthy of help in this sense, and then the police are called in to engage in more explicit violence against these people who were already subject to the lower-grade violence of a society that ignores the mental health needs of much of the working class and poor. Too often unhoused people end up in a situation this.
Whether it’s “Medicare For All,” expanding Medicaid benefits, community health centers with mental health care or something else, something needs to be done to minimize these crises to begin with.
Jack A. Draper III teaches Brazilian and Latin American cultural studies at MU.